Content Advisory: Spoilers for Camelot 2050 books 1 to 3.
So, with most of us confined to our homes for the foreseeable future many of our regular social interactions have been put on hold. That’s not so much of a problem for us writers as we always have our characters to talk to.
Now, there are many long-standing jokes about how writers interact with their characters; from the ‘Evil Overlord, Mwahahaha!’ model to the ‘I just let them loose and write the incident report afterwards’. Since I’ve started writing and paying attention to the online writing community I’ve found out, unsurprisingly, that most of them are true.
Now, I can only really speak for my own experiences and (in an effort to provide proof that you’re not going mad locked away in your home and talking to your characters) I’m about to.
I’ve explained before about the Planner/Pantser spectrum and how I have a rough plan of significant events that I gently guide my characters through while letting the story evolve around them. It’s like a halfway house between planning and letting the story tell itself erring toward more spontaneity. Well, sometimes the characters rebel and do their own thing, and I’ll tell you why…
There is a lot more to a character than eventually ends up on the page. A well-developed character has attitudes and ideas that never make it into the final draft or even onto the page at all, they exist entirely in the writers minds or (if you’re really lucky) in the notes. Also characters rarely spring out fully-formed and entirely original. As a writer I base characters on aspects of myself or on people I know. I take these templates and fill them out to give them their own personality and individuality and so, they become characters. This, of course, can lead to conflict when you want the story to go one way but the character you have established is less likely to choose the options that would lead them that way. And it’s won’t just bother you as the writer if you force it, it will bother your readership. Staying true to the character you’ve created is very important, if they are going to deviate it had better be for good reasons/motives.
Another problem with creating these wonderful, deep, multi-dimensional characters is that it’s just as easy for the writer to get attached to the characters as the reader (I mean, if the author isn’t attached to them, can they really expect the reader to be?) and that does, sometimes, make it hard to do the awful things to them that the story demands. Although he only appeared on page for a very brief time (the hotel sequence was added later) I set Sir Phillip of Essex (the MC’s mentor) up to be this ideal of what it was to be a knight of the round table and, when it came time to have him horribly murdered, I was far more attached to the character than I’d expected. I didn’t feel as much for Ros for her ‘loss’, we hadn’t been on our journey together as Author/MC yet but, actually murdering this exemplar of knighthood felt like a crime in itself. But I did it.
I had, at one point, planned to have a later treachery. I was angling for one of the core group to be a turncoat somewhere in Dark Magic but, as I worked through Dragon Fire I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. For one, the more I looked at each character the less sense it made and the more ‘forced’ I predicted it would feel. The bonds that these characters had built and the hardships they’d shared laughed in the face of my proposed treachery and that led to the kidnap and brainwashing arc, turning one of the core group against his friends against his will. It worked and it felt right.
So, you see, much as we might want to protect our precious characters, to swaddle them in cotton-wool and keep them safe, we can’t. Stories demand drama and conflict, the characters must be put in peril and at risk and, sometimes, they have to die.
It is hard, just this week I was working on my new manuscript and wanted to steer the story toward an event I’ve had in mind for some time (having the MC fall into the hands of the antagonists). As I explored the possible paths it became clear that this was going to be problematic. First of all, the story is set in space. If the antagonists came themselves there was no reason for them not to just wipe out the entire crew. If the more obvious character took advantage, well. There was already a president for them not leaving ‘possible problems’ behind them so again, I get the situation I want at the expanse of the rest of the main cast. I had to get creative and, since the story is about bigotry and there had been a lot of the open, in-your-face kind, it was time for some of the hidden kind to emerge. It was time for one of the main cast to turn villain.
Measure that against my second WiP, which happens to be Zombie Survival Horror and the expected death-toll that goes with it and the difficulty ramps up exponentially. The thing is, where you have characters turn traitor or die you want it to be a real, emotional impact on your audience. You want them invested in the characters, you want it to hurt. And if it doesn’t hurt for you it’s likely not going to hurt for them. Again it’s something to be handled with care. There are times when an author has used the death of a beloved character to rally the audience behind a new villain but, the examples I remember most vividly are the times when they killed (in my opinion as a fan) the wrong character and not only turned me against the villain but against the series as a whole. It’s a risk you run as an author when you choose to use these narrative tools.
As I said, you should be invested in your characters, you want your audience to be, however you shouldn’t be afraid of using them to their full extent (even if it means killing them in the process). Once you establish their personality/character stay true to it unless there is a properly motivated reason for them to deviate (characters who flip-flop in their opinions/actions are fine, in their place, but they are hard to root for). The characters I write are a part of me. Wherever the inspiration comes from I’m the one who moulds and shaped the initial concept into a character with friends, sometimes family and a vested interest in the events around them. I hope that I can do them justice, give them worth and value to the audience so that, should something bad (or good) happen to them, my audience will feel the thrill or the horror of their actions or their fate.
It’s good to care about your characters, just don’t let it stop you torturing them.